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City residents to vote on truck bypass plan

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents will get a chance on Town Meeting Day to vote on the plan backed by the city council to reroute half of the truck traffic that now goes through Vergennes around the city via Routes 17 and 7.
The city council on Tuesday agreed to put that question on the March 1 ballot in response to a concern raised by Alderman Mike Daniels, who noted a majority of the council had a potential conflict of interest in supporting the proposal.
Daniels pointed out that Mayor Bill Benton, who first brought the plan to the council’s attention, and council members Lowell Bertrand, Lynn Donnelly and Jeff Fritz all own property on Main Street.
Therefore, Daniels said, it could be contended the four stand to personally benefit from higher property values if northbound truck traffic instead traveled through Addison, Waltham, New Haven and Ferrisburgh on the alternate routes.
Daniels said he didn’t believe his fellow council members supported the proposal for personal reasons, but worried the potential conflicts could be used by opponents in the future.
“Move it forward, certainly, but I think we need to look at it in a different manner,” said Daniels, who suggested a citizen petition to put the measure on the ballot. “We need to be very clear and up front with people that we’re not trying to hide anything, and I don’t think we were.”
Fritz and Bertrand said it occurred to them back in December during the 6-1 vote backing the plan (Daniels dissented) that their lives might be quieter, but not that there could be any financial advantage. Donnelly said she thought of nothing except decades of trucks rumbling along Main Street.
“I don’t think there was ever a thought when it was brought up,” Donnelly said. “It was just traffic and what was best for the city of Vergennes.”
A 2012 Addison Country Regional Planning Commission traffic study concluded that about 64 trucks per hour roll through Vergennes.
Council members, including Renny Perry, discussed getting the opinion of an attorney, while City Manager Mel Hawley (who noted he and his brother also own a Main Street building) said the council’s conflict of interest policy offered a solution.
That policy, Hawley said, requires aldermen to disclose a potential conflict and state if they believe it will affect their ability “to act fairly and objectively in the public interest.”
Given city officials’ long and well-documented effort to reduce truck traffic in Vergennes and lessen its impact, Hawley saw no conflict.
“I think your policy already tells you what to do,” he said.
Perry at first said, and Fritz agreed, that the council should retain its decision-making rights and stay the course without a citizen vote.
“This government is not set up to do things that way,” Perry said.
But Aldermen Lowell Bertrand said he would like to see how voters felt, and new council member Mark Koenig said he expected balloting on an issue “near and dear to the heart of the voters” to show strong support for the bypass proposal.
Fritz then agreed, saying solid Town Meeting Day backing could also help city officials make their case to state officials.
“I think it would be overwhelming, and it would be the sort of thing that would give us some muscle,” Fritz said.
Council members then reached consensus on the vote, and the four with potential conflicts one by one stated they could act for the public good.
The plan calls for northbound traffic coming off the Lake Champlain Bridge to head east along Route 17 to Route 7 at New Haven Junction, and then head north to Chittenden County on Route 7 from there. That route would add five miles to what is a 300-mile round trip from Albany, N.Y., to Burlington, a roughly 1.7 percent increase. Having trucks go one-way only on Route 17 potentially resolves a major problem on that road, a narrow bridge over Otter Creek.
The route means northbound trucks would avoid the steep slope east of Otter Creek in Vergennes, and city officials could install a desired traffic light in that vicinity. The route would be enforced by creating a weight limit for northbound trucks in Vergennes. Those delivering to city businesses could get a permit.
City officials will be meeting with the regional planning commission’s Transportation Advisory Committee on Jan. 20, and Agency of Transportation officials will sit down with Vergennes officials on Jan. 26.
Benton stressed the proposal, which he hopes will not be expensive, is still preliminary, although VTrans has pledged to study it and he hopes soon to have 25 letters of support rounded up.  
“We’re going to see what happens at those meetings and take it from there,” Benton said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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